Philadelphia's beer revolution barged into uncharted territory - the upscale cafe - when it entered the paper-lantern-lit confines of Tria.
Until now, most local quaffing of Belgian abbey ales, German wheat beers, and turbo-hopped American microbrews has gone on in taverns. Think Monk's Cafe, that shrine to an encyclopedic beer selection and mussels; unpretentious but surprising neighborhood grills such as McMenamin's in Mount Airy; and decidedly edgier spots such as Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's, where devotion to local brews goes draft-in-hand with the grungy raw energy of neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties.
Tucked into a former ice cream shop a block north of Rittenhouse Square, the five-month-old Tria is anything but edgy. A mellow soundtrack segueing from Miles Davis to Norah Jones swirls through the slender room from an eMac perched at the end of the bar.
Votive candles flicker moodily from the wall above the long banquette. And there's a vaguely preppy, upturned-collar look to this polished crowd, whom I'd sooner imagine sipping apple-tinis in Old City than dipping their beaks into the foamy head of a glass of Lunacy ale. But here they are, bursting through the noisy, window-wrapped corner space onto the sidewalk, which is lined with tables.
What do you know? A bona fide beer and tapas bar for yuppies.
Though bringing the good-beer subculture to the well-coiffed masses of Center City's mainstream may be Tria's greatest achievement, that's only one leg of its three-part story. A good list of international wines by the glass and a light menu focused on cheeses, from tapas-style snacks to sandwiches and salads, round out what owner Jon Myerow calls the "fermentation trio."
That catchphrase has a pedantic tone that speaks to why Tria often feels like an awkward concept. It's as if the otherwise genial pursuits of beer, wine and cheese needed to be dressed in extra pretense to coexist here, even though some of the servers have trouble telling a Tomme from a pecorino, let alone delivering an accurate check. (My tab was botched on two separate occasions, with errors of $80 and $100.)
It's a distracting affect, because Tria at its most basic is built on a quest for great flavors. The beer list isn't as comprehensive as Monk's, but the selections are well-chosen to showcase a broad swath of the world's finest brews, which, at no more than $10 (for a bottle of rich Rochefort Trappist ale), are an amazing value. Other highlights include offerings from Belgian brewers Dupont, Cantillon and De Dolle; German beers from Weihenstephaner and Schneider; and American brews from Allagash, Victory, Dogfish Head, and Heavyweight of Ocean Township, N.J.
Wines by the glass get equal billing, with a nice selection of lesser-known bottles ranging from a delightful Spanish rose from Vega, to trendy whites such as Italy's Fiano di Avellino and Austria's Gruener Veltliner, to some good rustic reds: Sicily's Nero d'Avola and a big rioja, Crianza from Solabal.
Tria's small-plate menu is unusual in that it's meant to accompany the drinks rather than be the focus of a meal. It's a study in cocktail-party nibbles, and though little actual cooking is involved (assembly of prepared ingredients is a better description), there are some memorable combinations.
Brie with strawberries may sound like a cliche, but the version I tried was particularly fine, with a burst of sweet balsamic-tinged fruit followed by the creamy, slightly gamy pungency of Brie de Meaux. I adored the smoky slices of Tyrolean-style speck ham that came with house-made mushroom mustard. And I could eat ramekin upon ramekin of the garlicky cheese fondue.
Tria served me my first truly ripe tomato of the summer - a plateful of luscious red wedges scattered with crumbled Bulgarian feta and tangy onions. I also loved a few of the Italian-style sandwiches: the rustic roll stuffed with deliciously oily Spanish tuna and salty olive tapenade, and the panino filled with soppressata and fontina cheese, its bread neatly grilled into crisply pressed ridges harboring oozy cheese and salty cured meat.
For dessert, the bruschetta of honey-caramelized brioche smeared with mascarpone and marinated strawberries was like French toast from heaven.
But the kitchen made some careless slips. I found a pit inside the olive tapenade smeared on bruschetta toast. The woody stem of a tomato was an unpleasant surprise in the grilled cheese. And that promising sandwich had other issues: The combination of heated grana Padano, fontina, and young goat cheese made for a pasty, lumpy blend that should have been creamier.
There wasn't enough smoke in the smoked chicken sandwich. The taste of truffle was virtually absent in the "white truffle-scented" mushroom and Brie panino. And the classic mozzarella and tomato sandwich was drowned in balsamic vinegar and far too skimpy on the cheese, slipping in a handful of white chips where I'd hoped for a big, milky slab.
In fact, the cheeses were my biggest disappointment at Tria, surprising since the menu makes such a to-do about sourcing its cheese exclusively from Murray's in New York.
Given that some of the best cheese boards in town range from $12 to $18 for an assortment, the cheeses here are relatively pricey at $5 to $7 for a small taste of each. And while none of the artisanal cheeses on Tria's changing list of 15 was bad, I didn't taste a single one out of a dozen that I'd call sublime.
None was brought to the proper temperature. And few, such as the herb-crusted Brin d'Amour or the creamy Perail, were even remotely ripe enough to reveal their pungent wonders.
I found a few pleasant curiosities - a delicate Burgundian blue called Persille de Beaujolais, a firm goat from Quebec called Le Chevre Noir. But this list seemed bent on mining esoterica to the exclusion of better-known powerhouse cheeses, say, a ripe Epoisses or raw-milk Reblochon, a mountain Taleggio or Robiola or any blue cheese with guts.
I wanted runny, but these cheeses barely walked. I needed stinky; the best they could offer was meek, a firm wedge of Swiss Stanser Schafkase that simply reminded me of a loudmouth Gruyère.